An interview with Jody Jenkins by John Mansell
Jody Jenkins is an established composer for film and television, based in Soho, London. His credits include numerous original scores, commissioned for a broad range of productions, as well as collaborations with some of the world’s most renowned film composers as a programmer and orchestrator.
You studied at the Royal Academy of Music and I think concentrated upon percussion and composition whilst there. Had you always had it in mind to write for film and television?
Well, I always wanted to be a performer. Both my parents were composers and it always seemed quite a lonely existence when I was a much younger. I loved being around orchestras and that sense of being in a big team. Most of my early observations of writing music were that it was quite tedious. Then as I went through Music College I started writing more and more and grew to love it. I also became aware that the life of a performing musician might not be for me. I’m glad I was a performer for so long now, because it was invaluable spending so much time with other instrumentalists, watching and learning.
You have worked as a programmer, sound designer and also an orchestrator for a number of other composers on film scores, i.e. Dario Marianelli, Harry Gregson Williams and Javier Navarette. When writing a score for a film or a television production yourself do you orchestrate all of your own music or do you use an orchestrator?
So far I have always orchestrated myself, for numerous reasons, mainly cost and for that extra sense of achievement and involvement. I love leaving Logic and going into Sibelius and seeing it all pan out in conventional music notation, and working on extra detail within the master score. There’s something exciting about working with the actual ‘dots’ that the players will ultimately read. However, I can see that on a big studio film, there just isn’t the time for one person to do all that work. There can also be too much pressure if you are wearing all those hats. Almost all composers are doing a large amount of the orchestration now, as they are writing into sequencers, with many more parts expressed there than on a short score.
You have also been responsible for providing additional music for certain films and productions. When they say additional music does this mean “source” music that may be heard in the movie or are you engaged to provide extra cues when the composer has finished his score and maybe the producers or director think the production requires more music?
It typically means cues within the film that might be apart from the main score i.e. source music or cues that sit in a very different genre. The main composer would always be aware of what’s happening; in fact it’s normally them that suggest hiring me. It’s a good way of getting ‘composer’ credits albeit ‘additional’.
COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES is one of your latest assignments. How did you become involved on this particular production and were you given any specific instructions concerning the type of music etc that you should compose for the film? I ask this because I think that the score is so varied in style. It has great dramatic cues, wonderful sweeping themes for strings, some passages that reminded me of the old Hollywood B horror movies, pop laced tracks and even a hint of spaghetti western flavors such as trumpet, whistling and use of harmonica at certain points.
The film is really a mash-up of several genres and it doesn’t take itself too seriously dramatically, so we thought it would be fun to make various homages to key ‘B’ movie score genres. When the project came along there was a temp track attached that already quite a diverse set of pieces in the cut. When you see the cues within the context of the film they all have some reasoning for their various pastiches. I actually had even more ingredients in there initially, but we went through and toned it down a bit before recording.
The score for COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES contains a broad selection of instrumentation. What size orchestra did you utilize, how many voices were in the choir and what percentage of the score was electronic? Also the choir chant “Zombie Time” – did I hear that correctly? It’s so simple but so effective.
We used plenty of live elements but often recorded at different times over the scoring period. We did a small string session [20 players], some trumpets and a guitar band. The choir was recorded out it Latvia where I often visit to take advantage of this really great choir. They are basically the state radio choir and they sing together every day. Some of the basses go really low [bottom D/C], as in the Eastern European tradition so it seemed a logical step to give them these demonic zombie chants.
Staying with COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES. When they decided to release the soundtrack CD on the Screamworks Records label, were you involved with the production of the CD and did you select which cues etc. would be used on the release?
I took the cues from the film and edited them together a bit, to make it more “listen-enable” and then Screamworks worked on an order, which worked fine for me. They are a great company to be involved with and their input has been invaluable.
It’s obvious because of your father that you come from a very musical background. Was music in general always something that you were interested in and wanted to be involved in and who would you say were your main influences or sources of inspiration when it comes to music composition etc?
I would say my main inspiration in terms of craft and skill would be all the great masters of the classical canon, particularly Richard Strauss, Stravinsky etc., and then the pick of all the great film writers working today always inspire me in terms of new sounds, current trends etc. We have to accept as film composers that we are working commercially, in an industry dominated by fashions, so we are all hugely influenced by the vogue sounds from the established composers, even if it’s not intentional.
You have worked on documentaries as well as TV programmes and of course feature films. For you, what are the main differences between writing for a documentary as opposed to a feature film; if indeed there are any differences?
Obviously budget! Then the other big difference is that sometimes in TV you are writing a ‘library’ of tracks for the editors to use rather than writing to picture. Film-makers are often ‘artists’ who would die for their films and tend to be thinking about it 24/7, whereas TV producers are often characterized by being very short of time and often not able to really focus on music, anything you can do to make their job easier is really appreciated. Within the scoring industry, I think there is less snobbery towards TV then there used to be. Production values have come on so much, and a lot of TV looks and sounds so good now, it deserves music to match. Also, the reality is, I am based in London, not LA, and there isn’t a huge slate of films in production here all the time. If you refuse to write for TV simply because you want to be seen as a ‘film composer’ then in my experience you may be waiting around for a while!
When you are scoring a production how many times do you like to see it before you begin to put together ideas for the music?
Normally I watch it once on my own; I like to watch it at home on the sofa, without the ‘composer’ hat on. Then I’d probably be ready to watch it with the director and discuss the scenes and musical arc etc. I feel that ‘spotting’ is invaluable and it’s become a bit of dying art in this era of temp tracks. It’s important to remember that a lot of the all-time classic scores were really well spotted, as frequently the next time the composer would be with the director again would be on the scoring stage,
Is it better for you to be involved in the early stages of a production rather than come in at say the rough cut stage of the proceedings, or maybe you prefer to work from the rough cut rather than reading a script?
If you start writing too early on it can waste time, but conversely it can inspire the film-makers and get them used to hearing the cues. It’s really entirely up to the director. In a business sense, I always try and get involved as soon as possible, before the producers start talking to too many of the competition! Sometimes, I have sketched out some ideas just to get the director keen, and then if all goes to plan they might not look at any other options. Like all things in this industry, it would be nice to think of everything in creative terms but there is often a political facet to things.
You have written the music to a number of advertisements also. I have always thought that must be even more difficult than writing a score because you get very limited time to get to the musical solution if you know what I mean. In a score you can build and also write central themes and secondary themes etc which create the ambiance and overall atmosphere but in an advert you have to get to the point and be attention grabbing I suppose. Do you find it more demanding writing less music for something like an ad?
In many ways commercials are easier because you are not having to be mindful of the whole ‘big picture’ all the time. There are many traps with full feature scores in terms of over-stating themes, getting the pacing wrong etc. These things are sometimes only apparent when you sit down and watch the whole thing. Commercials have their own set of challenges, often every second has to be exactly as the creative team wants it to be. With a feature film, it can ebb and flow and there isn’t the same forensic detail given to every frame. Also, in terms of getting things signed off, with a feature film if the director likes the cue you’re normally safe, but with an ad, you have to get it past the creatives, then client. You can rely on the fact that everyone has an opinion.
Do you perform on any of your scores for TV and feature film – likewise do you conduct all of your own scores or do you at times use a conductor?
I play lots of percussion on my own scores as I am a trained percussionist. I also play all the synth and keyboard parts. I also normally like to conduct although really one wants to be in two places at once when one records; out on the podium with the players and behind the desk in the control room – holding the director’s hand through the whole process. In reality you have to give up one of those and then make sure you’ve got someone you can trust in the other seat. I’ve learnt increasingly that film-makers love to see the composer out on the scoring stage with the baton as there’s something almost mystical about it.
You worked on RIVER QUEEN which has a score composed by your father. What were your duties on this assignment?
I grew up helping out with click tracks and printing parts and started doing percussion for him on various projects. I still occasionally help out where needed. I think on that one I did some percussion programming for him. We don’t make a habit of being in the studio together any more!
ALADDIN was a film that you scored in 2009. This is a film produced in India. How did you get involved on this and where did you score the movie – in the UK or in India?
The director was very keen on a ‘European’ score for this so he came to London looking for someone who could offer a fairly straight fantasy/magical sound. He approached my agent looking for some else actually and then they put me forward as an alternative. It was all scored in Abbey Road, Studio 1. I did go out to India and record some Indian elements though; some percussion and so on. The studios in Mumbai are great, as are the session players. It made me realise how the music industry has become quite globalised. In Mumbai, you can walk down a lane with cows and all the bustle of India, and walk into an air-conditioned studio and find it’s been designed by the best studio designers from London, and full of all the gear you are already familiar with from Abbey Road, Air etc.
When working on a television series which is more than say, four episodes, it must be a pretty tight schedule. Do you ever re-use or adapt cues that you have written for previous episodes and work these into later ones?
Yes – see above. Often a production will have different editors working concurrently so there’s no way you can address all cuts. Normally I find you’re best off just concentrating on Ep. 1 but giving all the cues being produced to the editors cutting the other eps; then when you can, you look at any corners in the other eps that aren’t served by the existing music. I know ideally, you would score each ep, but there isn’t always the time or money. I always think music is more editable than some musicians would believe. It’s helped partly by the technology, but also there are so many great music editors around now, who can put together great scores from a library of cues.
How do you work out your musical ideas, via keyboard or piano or technical means, computer etc or good old pencil and manuscript?
“Good old” – it’s strange how it’s still romanticized isn’t it? In the same way when I visit a VFX department and meet a VFX supervisor, even if they have 500 animated working on the latest systems, when someone picks up a pencil and draws something, you are instantly impressed. Basically, for more melodic/harmonic cues I write at the keyboard and put down chords and top lines with a pencil and manuscript, but I soon start to put stuff into Logic and the build it from there. For action/textural/atonal material I would probably not even bother with the pen and paper and just program parts into Logic. I get the cues sounding as close you possibly can with samples, prior to directorial approval, then everybody concerned knows what it will sound like when we get the real players in the room. I orchestrate by exporting a MIDI file from Logic into Sibelius and working from there, before it all ends up on paper again.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
There are almost as many answers to that as there are scores! To give the film it’s musical identity, to support the narrative, to give a sense of time and place, to enhance empathy, add excitement, create a spectacle. It’s at its best when it exists as a distilled musical expression of the filmmaker’s vision.